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In Iowa, Young Voters Unenthusiastic About Obama

Supporters of Barack Obama hold signs as they listen to the then-candidate speak at an elementary school in Iowa in 2007. Crucial to his 2008 election, many young people have since grown disenchanted with the president.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Supporters of Barack Obama hold signs as they listen to the then-candidate speak at an elementary school in Iowa in 2007. Crucial to his 2008 election, many young people have since grown disenchanted with the president.

Young voters came out in huge numbers to elect President Obama in 2008. This year, with no primary contest, Democrats are using their caucuses to test how much support they have in Iowa. But many young liberals have grown disenchanted with the president, and some have thrown their support behind Republican Ron Paul.

On Monday, 10 Obama for America volunteers made calls to registered Democrats from a Panera Bread turned phone bank just outside of Des Moines. The volunteers reminded Democrats when and where to show up to caucus.

John Kraus, the campaign's Iowa communications director, says the caucuses are a chance to show that Obama's network from 2008 hasn't disappeared.

"Whether it's the Iraq War or ending 'don't ask, don't tell,' [or] making college more affordable, many of the things that he talked about in 2008 that inspired a lot of young people to get involved are issues that he's delivered on," Kraus says.

Despite the state's focus on Republican candidates, he says young Iowans are still connected to the campaign and still devoted to Obama.

But how many young people remain inspired and involved four years later?

Deep Pessimism

Nick Cavanaugh, 23, is one of the more than 26,000 young Democrats who caucused for Obama in 2008. Back then, Obama was any easy choice for him and his friends.

"I'm pretty sure everybody was excited about Barack Obama in 2008," Cavanaugh says.

But this year, Cavanaugh says he doesn't know which candidate his peers support. Apart from a few Facebook posts here and there, no one talks about the caucuses.

Cavanaugh says the arguing in Washington has really turned him off.

"So I've started ignoring it all," he says. "I used to be a lot more politically informed, but not anymore. I just kind of let it go."

Never in a million years [could I] imagine myself registering Republican.

Cavanaugh says he'll still probably vote for Obama in November. But caucusing for him? Definitely not.

And that's the prevailing attitude among 18- to 29-year-olds, says John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard's Institute of Politics.

"There is a deep pessimism among young people across the country," Della Volpe says. "Only 12 percent of young Americans believe the country is headed currently in the right direction."

In December, Della Volpe held a focus group in Des Moines with young Democrats and independents who supported Obama's election in 2008. He says they were frustrated that the president hasn't had more success getting his agenda past Congress. Many of them think that he didn't change enough in Washington.

"I do think young people are sending up a signal," Della Volpe says. "[They're] letting both Obama [and] Republicans know that they're just frustrated, and that they don't see enough change, they don't see as much of an effort of engaging this generation as they did last election cycle."

Switching Allegiances

Just how young Iowans send that signal on caucus night could be as routine and undramatic as not turning out.

Others, like 25-year-old Matt Heflin, have switched parties.

"Never in a million years [could I] imagine myself registering Republican," Heflin says.

And yet, the former Obama supporter is now running a grass-roots campaign office for Ron Paul in an Iowa City suburb.

Heflin says he's a full convert who would vote for Paul in November. And he says he's just one of many young liberal voters who are receptive to the Texas congressman's stance on issues like cutting the military budget and ending the war on drugs.

Heflin says he's doing all he can to turn their open-mindedness into caucus votes.

"We definitely go to areas that are traditionally much younger [and] have a higher student population," Heflin says. "When we call people, I try to avoid a certain age demographic calling because I'm just not very successful."

When asked which demographic, Heflin responds, "Oh, I'd say anybody over 60 is just not on board with Ron Paul, I've found."

"Don't trust anyone over 60" is a strange slogan for supporting a candidate who is 76 years old. But polls show that young Republicans and independents are responsible for making Paul a top contender in Iowa.

In hopes of adding young Democrats to that support base, the Paul campaign has been handing out pamphlets with instructions on how to register Republican, if only just for caucus night.

This story was produced by Youth Radio.

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Robyn Gee